The problem is Netanyahu, not Ya’alon

With his attacks on Kerry, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is positioning himself as the new leader of the Israeli right.

The problem is Netanyahu, not Ya’alon
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon looks over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shoulder at a military exercise, (Photo by Kobi Gideon / GPO)

I basically agree with those claiming that there is no daylight between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on the issues, only on style and timing. Netanyahu has surrounded himself with opponents of the two-state solution: his political circles are full of settlers, national-religious and other hawks — and not only in the cabinet, but in his own bureau. As veteran political correspondent Shalom Yerushalmi noted in Maariv on Wednesday, for weeks these people have been running around saying what Ya’alon said to anyone who would listen, only they were saying it in private.

People like Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and Netanyahu’s new policy adviser Dore Gold have spent their entire professional careers arguing against a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, land swaps or not, and none of their recent statements show any change of heart – neither has Netanyahu, for that matter. The nearly nine-year guessing game about Netanyahu’s “true” intentions says more about those doing the guessing than the man himself.

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Just like Netanyahu, Ya’alon probably understands that the negotiations serve Israel’s interest by maintaining the status quo, since most of the international pressure on Israel tends to go away when peace talks are taking place. That is why even Naftali Bennett supports the talks, or at least doesn’t mind them. So what made Ya’alon pounce, attacking Secretary Kerry so viciously in a conversation he surly knew would leak?

Part of the answer is a matter of personality. Ya’alon is a real ideologue and he has a history of not hiding his views. Ya’alon was a popular chief of staff under Sharon, but his opposition to the Gaza disengagement cost him his job (he is one of few heads of the IDF who did not have his term extended to a fourth and final year). Later, when Hamas took over in Gaza, Ya’alon scored many points with the Israeli center, on top of the admiration he already had from the settlers for supporting their cause. After the last elections, those very same groups were the ones petitioning Netanyahu to make Ya’alon his new defense minister; to be sure, Bibi knew what he was getting.

But there is also a political angle here. Every round of talks and every prospect of withdrawal presents a huge opportunity for the politician who could foreseeable lead opposition to that very deal/withdrawal/agreement. Again, Netanyahu should know. That is how he made his own career, by opposing Oslo, Camp David, the Taba talks, the disengagement and Olmert’s Annapolis process. As leader of the rejectionist right, Netanyahu was able to build the political base that serves him to this day. Even now, the mainstream of the settler movement and the far-right are not willing to part ways with Netanyahu.

In case something does come of the current peace process, and that something could be as small as an Israeli agreement to continue negotiating after Secretary Kerry presents his non-binding framework, someone will emerge to lead those who oppose it from the right. It will be someone who can carry a huge Knesset bloc – most of the Likud, the entire Jewish Home party, some ultra-Orthodox and maybe even one or two from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which isn’t as ideologically coherent as some people like to think. And if nothing happens, then Ya’alon emerges as the winner anyway, having predicting the talks’ failure.

MK Miri Regev, one of the more vocal backbenchers in the Likud and the head of the Knesset’s important Internal Affairs Committee already posted a Facebook status congratulating Ya’alon for his statements against the secretary of state and the impending “buy-off agreement” (the Hebrew wording means something closer to “surrender agreement”) he is trying to promote. Regev later removed her post; a screenshot can be found on Tal Schneider’s political blog.

Ultimately, the elephant in the room is not Regev, other backbenchers, Bennett and the settlers or even Ya’alon. The problem is Netanyahu and the way the Obama administration is allowing him to avoid any real commitment to the peace process. Netanyahu is negotiating without accepting the terms of reference that were agreed upon in previous rounds of talks; he continues to populate the West Bank with Jews; he is constantly adding new hurdles and conditions; and he is moving the Jewish-Israeli public further and further to the right with his statements and actions. That is how Netanyahu can continue to talk to the Palestinians while maintaining his coalition with the likes of Bennett and Ya’alon.

Real commitment comes in the form of political capital, not the political theater surrounding meaningless gestures like the prisoner release or “a partial settlement freeze.” Sharon sacked Likud ministers who opposed the disengagement and broke away with his own party. Without a duel political crisis – one between Washington and Jerusalem and another inside the Israeli government – the entire Kerry process remains a theoretical exercise, empty words and not much more.

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